When Does Life Begin?

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

In the post ‘Artificial Embryos and Clones’, we discussed the possible impact of the development of artificial wombs or cloned humans, inferred from the recent creation of artificial human embryos from human stem cells. In discussing these speculative developments, we talked of the embryos as potential human beings. Now, while according to the scientists, ‘these aren’t true embryos and lack the capacity to turn into a person’ (Technology Review, 2019; Sydney Morning Herald, 2021), they do still raise the question as to when life begins in humans.

The answer to this is unequivocal. Life begins in humans upon fertilisation of the egg. Or in other words, “upon the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization” (Moore, 1988). Post-fertilisation, the zygote contains all 46 chromosomes required in a human being and, thus, by producing ‘specifically human proteins and enzymes, directs their own further growth and development as human, and is a new, genetically unique, newly existing, live human individual' (Dianne N. Irving, 1999).

"Early human embryos" by ZEISS Microscopy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

‘After fertilization, the single-cell human embryo doesn’t become another kind of thing. It simply divides and grows bigger and bigger’ (Dianne N. Irving, 1999). This position is logically consistent as, unlike the popular ideas that seem to deny a child’s existence before arbitrary developmental milestones, by basing our definition on the biological fact that post-fertilisation, the baby possesses all the genetic requirements for developing into a human being, which it did not possess before fertilisation, we set a clear definition of when a person is a person and when life begins in humans.

Namely, that once the male and female gametes meet and form a zygote, life begins and that a lifeform can be considered human if it meets the requisite chromosomal requirements of the human species. This is quite different from the position that posits that life begins when the heart begins beating, a nervous system develops when the child could survive outside of the womb, or (on the more extreme fringe of the debate) at birth. In each case, unlike our definition, these alternate definitions rely on nuanced arguments as to which level of development or ability constitutes a human being and life.

Consider the position, which is used in the majority of abortion restrictions in Australia and the United Kingdom, foetal viability. This limit set around twenty-five weeks relies on the implicit assumption that babies are not really people if they cannot live without medical assistance. By reducing the proposition to its core, which suggests that personhood is tied to the individual being able to survive (be viable) without medical assistance, we can see the weakness of the argument.

This position would be sustainable only if we were to accept that once a person lost the ability to live without medical assistance (such as a ventilator), no matter how temporary that loss of viability was, they would cease to be considered a person. This position is not one that many people would accept. As based on a logical extension of the viability position even during surgery, if you stopped breathing on your own, you would cease to be a person legally and, thus, lose all legal protections ascribed to a human being.

Our definition of when life begins while illustrated with the alternate definitions used in the abortion debate fundamentally should not be confused with a position on the acceptability or non-acceptability of the abortion (killing) of a baby. Unlike Christians, we do not hold human life to be especially sacred. The morality espoused in the Code is focused on the achievement of the purpose of life by ensuring the survival and welfare of our families. If it is essential to the achievement of this purpose that we kill, steal, or lie, then those actions become right. Just as if when it is not essential to the achievement of the purpose, those actions are bad due to their harmful effects (see The Code: Chapter 18 - Perspectivism and Morality & Chapter 19 – A Framework for Moral Decision Making).

The subject of abortion and euthanasia are, therefore, complex ones in the Codist philosophical system. They are quite distinct from the question of when life begins in humans instead of falling under the moral question of when it is right to take a life. We will explore this question in a later post, but until then, remember that today may be your last, so live it well.

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Dianne N. Irving, M. P. (1999). Princeton. Retrieved from https://www.princeton.edu/~prolife/articles/wdhbb.html

Moore, K. (1988). Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: Decker Inc.

Sydney Morning Herald. (2021, 03 18). Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/national/scientists-create-model-embryos-in-lab-raising-major-ethical-questions-20210317-p57bkc.html

Technology Review. (2019, 09 11). Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/09/11/133089/meet-the-artificial-embryos-being-called-uncanny-and-spectacular/

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